There Is No Such Thing as “Wordless Prayer”

There Is No Such Thing as “Wordless Prayer” January 9, 2023

“There Is No Such Thing as “Wordless Prayer”

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I don’t remember exactly when I first encountered the idea of “wordless prayer” (also sometimes called “centering prayer” and/or “contemplative prayer”). But I know it was “all the rage” when I arrived to teach theology at Bethel College (now Bethel University) in 1984. At first I thought maybe it had something to do with “The Jesus Prayer” which I already knew from reading “The Way of the Pilgrim” when I was in high school. Interestingly (at least to me), I discovered that book and that prayer by reading a little-known book by J. D. Salinger.

But, then I discovered Basil Pennington whose classic book “Centering Prayer” was extremely popular among some of my colleagues and others I met even in the evangelical Christian community in the Upper Midwest (especially). I belonged to a small group for spiritual formation (all Bethel faculty members) who practiced “centering prayer.” I tried but failed to find anything helpful in it (just as I failed to find anything spiritually helpful in speaking in tongues when I was Pentecostal!).

Then, when I arrived at my final place of teaching employment, I was part of a faculty “covenant group” that practiced 20 minutes of centering prayer every time we met (once weekly). I had trouble staying awake.

Now, what is this kind of “prayer” that I’m against? Wordless, centering, contemplative prayer is supposed to be the practice of simply communing with God without words, bypassing the rational, thought-filled mind and all words and just being still before God and sometimes listening for God. In other words, it is NOT, as my theological mentor Donald G. Bloesch defined prayer, “conversation with God.” There are no words in wordless, centering, contemplative “prayer.”

I have never been comfortable with this practice for a few reasons.

First and foremost, I cannot find anything in the Bible about prayer that is wordless. Meditation, perhaps, but not “prayer.” In the Bible prayer is always with words, either speaking to God or hearing from God.

Bloesch said in “The Struggle of Prayer” that wordless prayer is not prayer but can be “preparation for prayer.” I agree.

Second, I suspect that “wordless, centering, contemplative ‘prayer’” is drawn from mysticism rather than from biblical, classical Christianity. In other words, it reminds me of what is now called “mindfulness” which I call “mindlessness” (not a negative term here) which can be very helpful to relieve stress and anxiety. But I don’t see what it has to do with Christianity. Both remind me of Zen Buddhism (which I have also practiced at a Zen Center but without participating in any rituals or ceremonies—only the meditation technique).

Third, it seems to me that for many who practice wordless, centering, contemplative “prayer” it comes to replace conversation with God.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t consider wordless, centering, contemplative “prayer” sin; I just don’t consider it true prayer.

To those who are about to confront me with Paul’s mention of the Spirit praying through us with groanings too deep for words, that’s a whole other subject. That is NOT referring to “wordless, centering, contemplative” “prayer.” I’m not sure what it is referring to. When I was Pentecostal all Pentecostals thought it referred to speaking in tongues. And, whatever it means, surely the Spirit is speaking words through the pray-er even if the pray-er does not know what the words are. In that prayer it is the Spirit praying. But we could talk about that forever. It’s an obscure biblical reference.

I think too many evangelicals, especially educated ones, have a tendency to get bored with traditional evangelical spirituality, worship, devotion, life, and reach out to draw on non-evangelical traditions and practices. Surely this is such a case (when it is evangelical Christians doing it). Sometimes that leads to syncretism, something I wrote about here recently.

I would urge evangelical (and other) pastors and spiritual directors and etc., to avoid “wordless, centering, contemplative” “prayer” except as preparation for prayer which is conversation with God.

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